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Wimbledon's World Cup fever

6/27/2010 - Tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- In many minds, Spain was the favorite to win the World Cup, but Switzerland was the shocking 1-0 winner when the Group H sides met in first-round action.

"This is something very historic for Switzerland," explained their leading tennis citizen, Roger Federer. "We obviously haven't had the success on a soccer level that maybe we've had in tennis over the last 20 years.

"But, obviously, this was a huge match. I didn't get in touch with Rafa [Nadal], because I'm not the type of person who rubs it in. We know the bad times can come by very quickly. But after a match like this you're allowed to start dreaming that you could go much further in the competition."

The dream ended Friday, when Spain beat Chile, and Switzerland -- the unfortunate epitome of neutrality -- fashioned a disappointing nil-nil draw with Honduras. So, Spain advanced to the second round in South Africa -- and Switzerland went home.

Federer, the No. 1 seed here at Wimbledon, is hoping that this does not have any far-reaching implications regarding a certain No. 2 seed from Spain.

"I'm not superstitious," Federer said.

Tennis players are, by nature, citizens of the globe. Soccer is the world's most popular sport. It figures that the tournament within the tournament at Wimbledon … is the World Cup.

Soccer's round of 16 was set Friday, the same day that the top half of the men's draw and the bottom of the women's delivered 16 players to Monday's fourth round. On Saturday, the other half arrived. A quick review of the results suggests that the tennis players are performing better than their national soccer teams.

The United States, which played Ghana in the knockout round, had all kinds of representatives: Andy Roddick, as well as Venus and Serena Williams. England, which meets Germany on Sunday, has Andy Murray -- well, sort of -- he's from Scotland. Uruguay, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Paraguay, Ghana, Portugal, Chile and even Argentina have no tennis players left in the draw.

Serbia was seen as a Group D power, but finished last. Not so for No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic and No. 4 seed Jelena Jankovic. The same went for Australia, which was edged out by Ghana for second place in Group D, much to the consternation of 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt. But when Australia knocked Serbia out of the tournament with a stunning 2-1 victory, Djokovic was despondent.

"They were shattered, him and [Nenad] Zimonjic, in the locker room," Hewitt reported. "They expected us to tank."

Said Djokovic: "I'm a very bad loser. I had a sleepless night after we lost to Australia. I just don't understand why we were defending in the second half. If we had the draw, we would go through.

"Next time, I guess."

In the United States, the World Cup has been received quite well; the England-United States match drew a total of 17 million viewers -- more, on average, than the NBA Finals, but not the kind of absorption you see in some other countries. Some 204 countries tried to qualify for this World Cup; a dozen more than are members of the United Nations.

Every four years at Wimbledon, the worlds of soccer and tennis collide. Here's a few stories to keep you engaged on the open Sunday:

David Nalbandian caught looking ahead? Four years ago, the ponytailed Argentine had a modest request for Wimbledon officials. Would they mind giving him an early start time so he could watch his favorite soccer team take on Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals?

Done, said the All England Club. And that's just what the 2002 finalist and No. 4 seed was after three sets with Fernando Verdasco. The young Spaniard took down Nalbandian 7-6 (9), 7-6 (9), 6-2 in their third-round match, and immediately, the speculation began that Nalbandian had tanked so he could watch the Argentina nationals play.

The tennis began at noon, which should have left plenty of time to spare, but when the first two sets went the limit, it was clear that if Nalbandian took the third set, he might miss at least part of the game. He smashed his racket several times on Court No. 13 and left in a foul mood, to say the least. Of 19 break points on Verdasco's serve, Nalbandian converted only one.

His mood couldn't have improved when Germany's Miroslav Klose headed in the equalizing goal late to create a 1-all game. Ultimately, Germany prevailed 4-2 in penalty kicks and the Argentines, like Nalbandian, had been booted from the tournament.

The Queen of Kicks: Maybe Sara Errani should have stuck with soccer like her brother Davide.

Sure, the 23-year-old Italian is ranked No. 33 on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and yes, she won two titles in 2008. But … with feet like that, why did she ever turn to tennis?

In a WTA-sponsored keep-up competition, Errani kept the soccer ball going for a staggering 208 alternate-foot bounces -- go ahead, try that at home -- 96 touches better than Sara Borwell of England.

You can see the amazing results here and here.

With Italy out of the World Cup, who is she rooting for?

"Not Spain," Errani said.

Rafael Nadal's favorite sport is … futbol: Well, to watch on television, anyway. At Queen's Club, the Wimbledon warm-up, soccer was a popular topic.

"I was watching first match now in the locker," Nadal said. "I can't see today France against Uruguay because maybe I in the plane, but I gonna be always watching the football, because it's my favorite sport."

Nadal could easily have been a soccer player himself. His uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, was known as "The Beast." He was a powerful defender/midfielder for FC Barcelona and helped Barca to five league titles. He earned 62 caps representing Spain and appeared in three different World Cups. He retired at the age of 31 after playing in four contests at the 2002 World Cup.

Miguel's brother, Toni Nadal, was more of a tennis player. When Rafa was 12 years old and already an accomplished tennis player and footballer, his father (who had seen his son's grades plunge) forced him to choose between the two sports.

"I chose tennis," Nadal said. "Football had to stop, straightaway."

Except on television -- and in his heart.

A gift from the father: Lei Clijsters is gone now, a victim of lung cancer last year, but his legacy lives on in his daughter, Kim.

The sunny Belgian will readily tell you that those tree-trunk thighs came from dad, while the athletic flexibility comes from her mother Els, a former national gymnast.

Lei played defense and was a central part of Belgium's best World Cup runs -- the semifinals in 1986 and the second round four years later.

In 1988, Clijsters was recognized with the country's highest soccer honor, "The Golden Shoe." Two years later, surrounded by great offensive talent, it was Clijsters who scored Belgium's first goal against Uruguay with a confident header.

Never, ever make jokes about sex, race -- or soccer: Safe to say, Andy Murray will be keeping a low profile through the second week -- and we mean off the court.

Murray who adores soccer -- he says he attended four or five live matches already this year -- often kicks the ball around in practice. Four years ago, he got kicked around by the boorish British media when he tried a little joke in an interview with Daily Mail sports columnist Des Kelly.

Teased about his native Scotland's inability to make the 2006 tournament, Murray was asked which team he favored.

"Whoever England are playing against," Murray responded.

For the record, his sarcasm wasn't evident in the written piece, and Murray, who plays under the mantle of Great Britain, caught bloody hell.

He's made amends since, dressing in Fred Perry gear, celebrating the last British man to win Wimbledon (in 1936). He designed a retro outfit with the All England Club. His support staff is largely English.

"I like the English people," Murray has said.

This actually may be true.

At Queen's, old (English) flame Kim Sears was in his box cheering alongside his mother Judy. After spending some years together in a 5-million-pound mansion in Surrey, Sears returned to her parents' home in Sussex last fall. Now, it appears they are an item again.

Caroline Wozniacki loves Steven Gerrard this much: Wozniacki learned to play tennis from her father, Piotr, and brother, Patrik -- soccer players both.

Piotr played for both Polish and Danish teams, and Patrick is a striker for the Danish side BK Frem. Wozniacki had her turn last week when she was attempting to defend her title in Eastbourne, posing for the tabloid photographers with a soccer ball on her toe.

Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner, a Dane, is a good friend, and Liverpool is her favorite team. A Fernando Torres-signed jersey is among her most prized possessions. Read this next quote and see if you can determine who her favorite player is.

"A Wimbledon title on July 3," Wozniacki responded when asked for her dream tennis/soccer scenario. "Then Denmark to win the World Cup on my 20th birthday, July 11, beating England 4-3 with Steven Gerrard scoring a hat-trick."

Need another hint?

The fascination goes both ways: The big ballers are just as mesmerized by those who hit the smaller pelota.

You might recall that Juan Martin del Potro hit a few balls with Carlos Tevez, one of Argentina's brightest stars, at the year-end championships last fall. Some of Real Madrid's biggest stars, including forward Raul Gonzalez, striker Cristiano Ronaldo and forward Gonzalo Higuain, attend the Madrid Masters to watch their friend Rafa Nadal. Argentina's manager, Diego Maradona, is a huge tennis fan. He even heckled players during matches in Argentina. He often attends Argentina's Davis Cup matches.

A charming (full disclosure -- this item contains a Disney reference) couple: Perhaps even more curious than Jurgen Melzer's appearance in the final four at Roland Garros was that thing hanging around his neck.

"It's a Mickey Mouse with a soccer ball," Melzer said in Paris. "My girlfriend has the other."

Sure enough, Olympic swim medalist Mirna Jukic has the same ball -- with Minnie Mouse.

"I'm a big soccer fan," Melzer explained. "We have been exchanging every time over the last year. It's something we always do."

Drawing no quarter: How is Sarah Borwell, Great Britain's No. 1 doubles player, going to guarantee that she won't miss any of England's games?

"I'm going to cozy up to the tournament director," Borwell said.

Realistically, how far can the Three Lions go?

"Uh," she said, pausing, "I'd like to say we're going to win the World Cup, but I'll say we get to the quarterfinal level -- as usual -- and struggle after that. Spain will probably win."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Ravi Ubha contributed to this story.